Turning Digital Dreams Into Reality: Qatar's Digital Incubation Center
The Digital Incubation Center (DIC) is a one-stop shop for digital entrepreneurs in Qatar –both Qataris and non-Qataris– who either have an idea or an existing startup. Operating as part of the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MOTC), the center offers two tracks for incubating entrepreneurs– the Idea Stage Track, for aspiring entrepreneurs, and the Startup Track, for those who already have a startup but need help in scaling up. While the Ideas Stage Track offers premises and support for up to six months and focuses on idea creation and transforming those ideas into viable, market-ready products, the Startup Track is for early stage startups with the primary aim of fine-tuning their business model, housing them for up to two years.
“Submission for the Idea Stage Track is open throughout the year and the committee judging the applications is usually composed of the DIC staff or drawn from the MOTC,” explains Duha Al- Buhendi, the acting Digital Incubation Center Manager. “But for the Startup Track, which presupposes that they already have a product in hand which needs more refinement, DIC puts it out to an external committee comprising decision-makers from Qatar’s digital ecosystem.” As for the eligibility criteria for applicants to the two tracks, Al-Buhendi says, “For the Ideas Track, we look at the innovation aspect. In addition, we should be able to foresee growth in the business idea.” For the Startup Track, she adds that DIC assesses and sharpens the business plan: what stage is the startup at, do they have a prototype of their product, etc.
In 2016, DIC added 11 new startups as part of the Startup Track and 14 Idea Stage teams. The 25 teams were chosen after a rigorous selection process, with the judges for the final selection of the startups including Abdulaziz Al Khal from the Qatar Mobility Innovation Center, Mahmoud Abdellatif Khalil from Qatar University, Najat Abdulraheem from Ooredoo, Dr. Munir Tag from the Qatar National Research Fund and a representative from the Qatar Development Bank (QDB). At present, all these teams are housed in the DIC facilities and are in various stages of their product development in diverse fields, such as cyber security, edutainment, e-commerce, gaming, digital content and smart city solutions.
Commenting on DIC’s new intake, Reem Al-Mansoori, Assistant Undersecretary- Digital Society Sector of MOTC, says, “We are excited with the new batch that has joined DIC. The new teams are working on innovative technologies and much needed solutions for Qatar. The objective of DIC has been to provide the necessary support for new tech startups to emerge from Qatar. Developing the technology sector in the country plays a key role in our transformation towards a smart society. We believe the youth of Qatar has the capacity to achieve great success if given the right support mechanisms, such as these incubation programs.”
Even though the center does not offer direct funding, the different services that each startup receives during the two-year period amounts to around QAR400,000 in indirect support, a MOTC statement has said. In 2017, applications for the first intake of entrepreneurs in the year will be done through the QITCOM 2017 Entrepreneur Zone to be held at the Qatar National Convention Center between March 6-8, 2017.
Ever since its inception in 2011, DIC has been finetuning its strategy. “The most important learning has been that there is nothing final in our learning curve,” Al-Buhendi says. “Each of our startups has unique challenges, and we, at DIC, also learn with each of them and grow in the process. Over the six years of our existence, DIC has learnt that with each startup, we need to think out of the box, and not only rely on past learnings to help them out.” Secondly, she continues, partnerships and networking are the best ways to support startups. Partnerships between DIC and different players in the Qatari ecosystem that can support entrepreneurship are vital and an ongoing process which needs sustenance.
DIC is always looking for ways to initiate new partnerships. “For instance,” says Al-Buhendi, “our collaboration with entities such as the Dubaibased AstroLabs, a co-working space for digital entrepreneurs, has enabled us to learn how to navigate and penetrate regional markets– the different regulatory requirements and regimes, the unique challenges of the different ecosystems. It is partnerships such as this that are helping DIC to develop best practices for startups in Qatar.” A final learning for the DIC is the realization that DIC itself is also a startup. Describing what that realization means for day-to-day functioning, Al-Buhendi adds, “We need to retain our youth, since we will forever be nurturing young minds and their ideas for the best development of our country. We, at DIC, will need to be nimble footed to harness the fast developments that Qatar is witnessing, especially in the run up to the FIFA World Cup 2022.”
The Qatari entrepreneurial ecosystem has other players, such as Qatar Business Incubation Center (QBIC), but Al-Buhendi points out that DIC is only for digital startups, which is not the case with QBIC. “We view them as a partner, a collaborator, not a competitor,” she says. “We realize that if we can partner better with QBIC, the overall impact will be positive in developing the Qatari entrepreneurial ecosystem. Together, we can create a more potent startup pipeline, train them together and share our expertise with each other. Our outlook with regard to the Qatar Science & Technology Park is the same.” Looking to the future, Al-Buhendi explains that DIC aims to be the best incubator in Qatar, and then scale up to become a major player in the wider region, building partnerships with organizations, such as QDB, QSTP, Microsoft, Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, Qatar Exchange, Ooredoo, Silatech, QBIC and others.
For both the tracks that DIC provides, it plays a role when it comes to commercializing the entities. Al-Buhendi speaks about five distinct and important roles that DIC has so far played in this domain: network building, including funding from QDB or angel investors; assistance in showcasing their businesses; help in creating industry contacts; training and coaching for professional roll-out; and boosting their marketing efforts through DIC’s own social media and PRs. Ziyad Al-Salloum is the founder of ZSS, one of the 72 startups already incubated at the center. “DIC provides a good entry point for entrepreneurs to the Qatari startup ecosystem, allowing us to network with like-minded people, spreading the word about the new technologies, and building relations with potential clients. This all has a ripple effect in creating a more robust ambience around Qatar’s transition to a knowledge-based economy,”Al-Salloum says.
Hashir Abdulla and Mohamed Harif, founders of Qeeks, another DIC success story, mention that the center played an important role in setting up their venture, right from the process of pitching the idea to forming the company and providing all necessary progressive guidance, and is still working closely with Qeeks to make it ready for the current market. They add, “DIC helped us understand that for a product to be successful it needs to have a well-executed business plan along with the right marketing strategy.”
With the current low international hydrocarbon prices and reduced opportunities, does Al-Buhendi think more of the youth of Qatar will look to entrepreneurship as a career option? “There is no denying the fact that oil and gas prices impact the number of jobs that are available in this marketplace,’ she says. “But this fact alone cannot determine why the Qatari youth will be driven to take up entrepreneurship as a career option. Other factors will affect the choice too. The academic curricula in the country have changed to incorporate entrepreneurship so that students are exposed to the phenomenon from a young age. Culturally, within Qatar, the acceptability of entrepreneurship as a career option has gone up, compared to the 1990s. There is at least one entrepreneur in every family, a member who has started his or her entrepreneurial career very young. At the other end of the spectrum, we see elderly women starting their home businesses. Over the past six years, we have noticed that the type, variety and the quality of ideas that come in, as applicants have significantly improved.”
A FEW OF THE STARTUPS INCUBATED AT DIFC QATAR
ZSS | Founded by Ziyad Al-Salloum
ZSS is working on introducing the world’s first geographical password solution. This cybersecurity technology will utilize the human ability to remember places as a means to provide safe access to different systems. Instead of writing conventional passwords that are difficult to remember, construct, and maintain, this UKpatented technology allows users to pick memorable places on planet Earth for which the app will automatically generate a one-time, unbreakable password. “Just imagine your geographical password to your bank, email, or social network is your summer home or the lake you visited few years ago!” says Ziyad.
Qeeks | Founded by Hashir Abdulla and Mohamed Harif
Qeeks stands for ‘Qatar Geeks’. It is a do-ityourself mobile app builder for anyone with basic computer knowledge to create, manage and publish both iOS and Android apps by themselves, in English or Arabic. The portal addresses the difficulties faced by small businesses and individuals in finding the right mobile app developer, the large development cost on each platform and the time involved in doing so. Qeeks sports a feature-rich easy-to- use interface to create mobile apps for business profiles, events, bookings and appointments, with WordPress site integration.
Lagyy | Funded by Khalid Al-Mohannadi
Meaning “find” in Arabic, the application Lagyy lists products from vendors dealing in building materials, furniture, lighting and many more. “This is a new and unique app and, as far as I know, such an app is not available anywhere in the region,” said Al-Mohannadi, who is the founder and general manager of the company. The app enables local companies to showcase their products to those in search of similar products and services. There are a number of categories ranging from kitchens, flooring, bathrooms, lighting, wall coverings and services related to home building and smart homes.